The Duck of Minerva

Sorry General, War is a Choice

14 June 2013

General David Petraeus advises Americans and their allies to be coldly realistic about what force can achieve. Oddly, he also advises them to prepare for a future where small wars are pretty much inevitable, where America must intervene early to prevent worse things happening later on, and where ‘stabilisation’ is a core part of war itself. Because, ultimately we sometimes have no choice.

Looking back on the ‘lessons’ that have been ‘written in blood’ in America’s wars since 9/11, Petraeus thinks he can see the greatest lesson, but repeats a common fallacy:

Our enemies will typically attack us asymmetrically, avoiding the conventional strengths that we bring to                     bear. Clearly, the continuation of so-called “small wars” cannot be discounted. And we should never forget                   that we don’t always get to choose the wars we fight.

To the contrary, countries like the United States almost always do get to choose. Not only the wars they fight, but how they fight them. That’s the thing about being an offshore superpower with a nuclear arsenal, friendly neighbours, overwhelming naval and air power shields and a strong army and marine corps to boot. If ever a state existed that usually, emphatically, does not have to accept war being imposed by others, it is this one. ‘Vital’ interests should mean just that – interests that are necessary for life.

Societies also choose how to commemorate wars and what lessons to divine in them. If there are lessons to be detected in others’ blood, if we are going down the dark path of claiming to speak for the dead, maybe the best response is that once again, its time to put an end to liberal crusading.

There is a mythology at the heart of the COIN movement, not only that small wars are a decent idea if only we get our tactics right, but that we have no choice in the matter. Following the words of those who argue for war in Afghanistan or Iraq, or Libya, that mythology carries with it the facile distinction between ‘good wars of need’ or ‘necessity’, and ‘bad wars of choice.’ World War Two, a war in which and about which America made conscious choice after conscious choice, is trotted out as the gold standard in terms of war being inflicted upon America, while Iraq for Bush’s critics becomes the wicked elective war.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it takes two to tango. War is a political act and a political choice, not a state of being that one power can inflict on another. Short of another state directly trying to annihilate you, there is always a calculus. Britain did not have to make guarantees to Poland in 1939, nor did it have to choose to resist Hitler in May 1940 at the great expense to its economic strength and its empire. Franklin Roosevelt, as Marc Trachtenberg shows, knew very well that getting into an escalating struggle with Imperial Japan in the late 1930’s with crippling sanctions might well draw it into hostilities, while at the same time, he wanted a clash with Nazi Germany if only opinion could turn and America could be prepared, and he took steps to extend America’s defensive perimeter across the Atlantic and draw the country in. The virtue and wisdom of these and all decisions can be debated. What cannot be is the role that at each turn, belligerents decide for themselves what is at stake and what is worth bleeding for. To deny this is to sidestep the difficult and ancient question, and ultimately to deny responsibility.

The small wars that Petraeus found himself taking command of were not foisted on Washington. 9/11 did not speak for itself. It had to be interpreted. And in response, the President with the support of Congress elected to invade countries, overthrow and install regimes, and then stay in the face of violent resistance, to embark on an ambitious project to spread liberalism at the point of a bayonet. The whole point of the Bush Doctrine and its embrace of anticipatory war was to choose conflict supposedly on America’s terms, and wage preventive wars instead of postponing struggles Bush’s team presumed were inevitable. Obama chose to rededicate America in the short term to Afghanistan, and four years, billions of dollars and many deaths afterwards, that ‘necessary’ commitment has not broken the Taliban nor tilted the balance.

Neither does the folly end there. Petraeus argues that America should get into the habit of prevention. He thinks he is making the case for a sober and restrained concept of force. But in fact he embraces a very presumptuous confidence about American power and foreknowledge. Picking dangerous places that should be ‘fixed’ in advance, with advisors and experts and investment…commitments that can have perverse results, unintended consequences and deepen entanglement. Petraeus counsels caution, but his policy agenda is one where the West still casually interferes and thinks it knows best.

There is in fact an alternative. One marker for it is the decision of President Ronald Reagan in October 1983, after the US Marine Barracks was bombed in Beirut, killing 241 people, one of the bloodiest days for America’s military forces since World War Two. Reagan denounced the attack, pledged to stay, ordered retaliatory bombings but only months afterwards withdrew US Marines offshore. In response to Islamists using asymmetric methods, Reagan did not decide that America had no choice but to get into an ambitious land war of regime change and armed nationbuilding. He pulled his forces out. A disciplined and prudent choice was available and Washington took it. We can only imagine the pleas of the small wars faction to act differently under similar circumstances.

Begging to differ with the clique of coindanistas that build their careers around the movement to turn America’s armed forces into an imperial constabulary, a truly ‘coldly realistic’ prudent appraisal of political violence should turn America away from peripheral wars and towards a far tighter and more restrained strategic vision. In other words, America and its allies really don’t have to go abroad in search of soup to eat with a knife.

PS: Thanks to my colleague Andreas Behnke for pointing out the important distinction between ‘coldly realistic’ and ‘prudent’ – for what its worth, this post wasn’t intended to strike a false pose of amoral Realpolitik.